New York

Darrel Ellis

Photography had a profound impact on the art of Darrel Ellis. In this posthumous retrospective of over seventy of Ellis’ works in various media dating from 1979 to 1992, it is the manipulated photographs and their translations into paint and ink that are most compelling.

Ellis’ relationship to photography was always ambivalent, even agonistic. He was photographed by both Robert Mapplethorpe and Peter Hujar, and his often reproduced Self-Portrait After Robert Mapplethorpe Photograph, 1989, is obviously an attempt to recover his own likeness, to take it back through his hands as he painted. Ellis was a committed self-portraitist, right up to the moment of his death from AIDS in 1992 at age thirty-three. When he was found lying in his bed in a coma, the easel at his bedside held an unfinished self-portrait, showing him with eyes closed, in the very pose he took in death.

But Ellis was most productively inspired by a cache of photographs made by his father before the artist was born. They picture the extended Ellis family and friends in Harlem and the South Bronx in the ’50s. Ellis knew his father, who was murdered by police two months before he was born, only through these images, which he reclaimed in 1981. To bring his father and that other world back, Ellis began to manipulate these images as a source for painting. He projected his father’s negatives onto three-dimensional Styrofoam molds, rephotographed the projections, further manipulated the resultant images (through cutting and tearing), and then translated the photographs into monochrome paintings. In Mother, from Father’s Photograph, ca. 1990, the photograph is tilted so that the frame forms a trapezoid, wider at the bottom. A long tear runs across the base of the image, visually rhyming with her white lace collar. A gray block of paint covers his mother’s eyes and forehead. She appears to be lost in thought, or in memory.

These free-floating blocks, placed over faces and features, appear in a number of the manipulated photographs. Like John Baldessari’s painted dots, they allow the eye to rest and to focus more intently on other parts of the image. Looking at the Mother image, we linger on her lips, lace, and the crescent fold of her bent left arm. At times, as in Untitled (Woman Posing), ca. 1990, there are transparent boxes within the boxes, segmenting the image and collapsing space. In the paintings done from these images, Ellis uses these distortions as a platform for further painterly investigations. This method freed up Ellis’ previously stiff style of painting, extending his range.

The manipulated images have an emotional urgency that is both thrilling and sad. Against the idealization of memory’s wholeness, they make the gaps, holes, and lies of remembrance visible and material. Old photographs claim to tell us something about the past, about our past, but their promise is always broken. At their best, Ellis’ distortions seem to come out of the images rather than be applied to them—they are transfigured at the source.

David Levi Strauss